A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how props transformed my yoga practice and last week, I went into a deep dive about yoga blocks in particular. Today I'm talking about yoga straps - what they are and how to use them to enhance your practice in multiple ways.
Straps are usually made out of cotton or hemp. A key difference between a strap and, say, a workout band, is that straps are non-elastic. They come in 6-, 8-, and 10-foot lengths; 6-feet is the most common and should cover all your yoga needs. However, if you're very tall or want to use the strap in creative ways, you can purchase the longer ones. They come with a metal ring at one end, which allows you to create a loop for leverage (see above picture, will go into detail below). They are durable and soft, which makes for a comfortable grip that can handle a lot of weight.
These are the straps I currently use and recommend:
(This is an Amazon Associate link. Please know I would never recommend a product I haven't used or loved myself. Enjoy!)
There are many purposes for incorporating straps into your yoga practice. These are the main four functions:
"Extending" Arms or Legs
Every yoga pose is not accessible to everyone. Even if you're a practiced yogi, your anatomy may just not allow you to come into a posture on a given day. And if you're not, yoga poses can be very challenging and sometimes just downright impossible for us. There is nothing to be ashamed of if either of these are the case - we all have different bodies that do different things at different times. Similar to yoga blocks, straps can be used to extend the arms or legs to make a pose more accessible. This is often seen in poses that ask of us a deep stretch or a demanding hold, such as a bind.
Take, for example, Cow-Facing Arms. In this bind, one arm is internally rotated and bent behind the back to clasp with the hand of the top arm, which is externally rotated and bent downward behind the head. Most of us have really tight shoulders so fully clasping the hands together can be difficult and unrealistic. A strap folded once or twice can bridge the gap between the two hands.
There are also more advanced poses, such as King Pigeon, that I for one have never been able to access completely, no matter how much I practice. It's a very demanding pose because you need to be extremely open in the hips, quads, back, shoulders...pretty much everywhere! A strap extends your arms and legs so they can reach each other. This particular version uses a loop at the metal ring end of the strap. As you hold and practice the pose, you can inch your hands closer to your feet along the strap. Please keep in mind that your spine and hips need to be warmed up for a pose like this, so do not try it unless you have done sufficient prep and have healthy back and hips.
These are just a couple ways you can use straps to extend your arms or legs to make certain poses more accessible!
Another purpose straps serve to enhance your practice is by improving alignment. As I mentioned above, there are many poses that may be inaccessible or impossible for your anatomy. Oftentimes it may mean you have to skip the pose or find a different variation of it. However, even though many of us know we should try to find an accommodation, we'll go ahead and force ourselves into the pose anyway. This speaks to that whole not-feeling-ashamed I referenced earlier. Sometimes we feel like we need to go all-in on a pose because we see other people doing it - this is especially true in group classes and by scrolling through Instagram. I've definitely been there! Even though that pressure to perform and fit in is very powerful, I urge you to listen to your body and not "listen" to your eyes (by looking at other people). Those people you see in classes or on Instagram have either been practicing that pose for a very long time, have a particular anatomical difference that allows them to do it, or are actually forcing themselves into it! Do not listen to the shame. It can really hurt you and actually cause an injury. Listen to your body instead.
A great example of this is Bound Extended Side Angle. This is a very challenging pose because it requires balance, strength, and flexibility - there's a lot happening at once! The legs are in Warrior 2 with the front knee bent and foot parallel to the side of the mat and the back leg straight with the foot perpendicular to the side of the mat. The upper body is at the angle it would be in for Extended Side Angle, essentially along the same sharp line of the back leg. Instead of the arms extended over head in a traditional version of the pose, the top arm reaches around the back to find the bottom hand, which is reached down and under the front thigh. Again, the lower body and core need to be strong enough to hold the position and the shoulders and back need to be flexible enough to keep the spine from falling downward with gravity.
What I see many folks do to reach this pose is lean way forward in order to reach that bottom arm under. They attempt to crash and contort themselves until the hands clasp. Don't do this - you will hurt yourself! Instead, use a folded up strap, as long as you need, to reach the hands to one another. Then, by pulling tightly with each hand on the strap, you can then extend the elbows and focus on properly lifting through the upper body for that straight, extended spine. The strap allows you to reach the proper, safe alignment in this pose.
Deepening A Pose
Another way straps are helpful is by deepening a pose. All of the examples I've shared so far from the other functions are all actually ways to also deepen a pose. By extending the arms or legs, you are deepening a pose. By using a strap for improving alignment, you are deepening a pose. Another way straps can deepen a pose is by taking advantage of their sturdiness. In each of the examples I've provided so far, imagine inching your hands further along the strap. Voila! You've deepened the pose. Here's another example:
In Revolved Head-To-Knee Pose, you are obviously using the strap to extend your arm (if you can't grab your foot with that top hand - I have very tight sides so that's a no-go for me). However, you can use the strap to go deeper in the pose than if the strap weren't there, too. Once you have that loop around your foot, you take hold of the strap at the length you're comfortable with the top hand and then start to open the chest and side body toward the sky. Once you've taken several breaths there, maybe you are ready to go deeper and can inch that strap-holding-hand a little closer to the foot. In this photo, I'm pulling on the strap anchored to my foot to actively open my side body and keep my chest open. Like with all these suggestions, don't push it and only do it if your body is warmed up and you don't have associated injuries.
Again, a lot of these examples overlap because these different functions are related. Leverage is another function of a yoga strap, which is connected to alignment, etc. One way I like to think about how a strap provides leverage is where it creates a support that wouldn't be there without the strap. A helpful example is Reclined Head to Big Toe Pose. If you have enough strength and flexibility, you can certainly just float that leg up in the air and you can consider yourself in the pose. You might then be able to take the traditional variation by reaching and wrapping the pointer finger around the big toe. However, with a strap wrapped around the sole of the floating foot and one end of the strap in each hand, you now have the support of the strap so you don't have to use your core or leg muscles to hold up the leg. Also, you can use the leverage of the strap to then eventually walk your hands up the strap, bringing your foot closer to your body and thus deepening the stretch in the back of the leg.
There are more way to use straps than just these examples. A quick internet search will show you lots of options. These are just a few basic ones that are based on the main functions of using a yoga strap in your practice.
Straps are much smaller than other props like blocks or bolsters and so take up less space, but perhaps you don't want to or can't invest in them right now. Here are some items you probably already have in your home that can act as an alternative and serve the same function:
If you have the finances and desire, I recommend going ahead and getting the yoga strap. I say this because of the metal ring for creating loops and the specially designed durable grip. However, these alternatives serve the same function and are convenient! These are just some ideas for alternatives. Take a look around your home and see what you can get creative with.
I hope you find this information about yoga straps helpful. As you can see, straps are extremely versatile and can be used in different styles of yoga for different reasons. As I've said throughout all of this and my most recent posts about blogs, the most important thing for you is to think about what you need/want out of your practice and then consider how straps might be able to help you achieve that. Also, always, ALWAYS warm-up your body and listen to what it's telling you! Enjoy and Namaste!